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Issue 142

The Bell at the End of Time

We came across the following documents during our research residency in Tbilisi at Georgia’s State Silk Museum in March 2019. Reviewing the extensive archives maintained by the museum’s library, in preparation for our upcoming film on the Silk Road, we were captivated by a series of notes and illustrations that felt oddly out of place in the collection. These documents stood out from the rest of the archives not only because of their seemingly disconnected subject matter but also because of their disparate sorting logic and clandestine placement amongst various expedition reports and personal notes written by Nikolay Shavrov, a Russian biologist and the founder and first director of Tbilisi’s Sericultural Station. At first glance, these records appeared to be little more than incidental entries or misplaced files, but soon, with the help of Darejan Demetrashvili, the librarian, and Mariam Shergelashvili, our research coordinator, we uncovered a series of interconnected narratives concerning a monumental intervention in the environs of Mount Ararat in modern-day Turkey.

  • Pejvak (Rouzbeh Akhbari and Felix Kalmenson), Photograph of documents, 2019, 16.96 x 27.31 cm

Nicknamed the “Silk Cocoon General” by the owners of mulberry plantations in the South Caucasus regions, Shavrov was celebrated in the scientific community for his devotion to empirical accuracy. In 1879, while studying in Moscow, he attended an anthropological exhibition at the museum of the Moscow University. It was here that he met for the first time Evgeny Dmitrievich Felitsyn, an officer in the Imperial Russian Army from Stavropol. Felitsyn was presenting his paper “Дольмены – богатырские дома ст. Баговской” (Dolmens – Giant Houses of Bogovskaya Station) based on his ongoing research into the dolmen structures found throughout the northwest Caucasus. We can speculate that their encounter was amicable because later they often met in Tbilisi to discuss their overlapping interests in Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology.

Furthermore, Felitsyn’s research is frequently referenced in Shavrov’s journals, particularly in his Caspian Expedition (1904). Shavrov had become particularly fixated on a narrative Felitsyn recalled regarding the famous Armenian writer Khachatur Abovian. During his travels to perform cursory examinations of the Tsaghkahovit Citadel in Armenia, Felitsyn had been hosted by a Yazidi man who claimed that Abovian’s trusted friend Chief Timur Aga was his grandfather. During a prolonged conversation covering diverse topics—including famed ascents of Mount Ararat and Armenia’s Mount Aragats—the Yazidi man brought out a series of curious journals that he alleged had been written by Abovian and entrusted to Aga during a visit with Baron August von Haxthausen, a German agricultural scientist, economist, lawyer, writer and collector of folk songs whom Abovian was escorting around Armenia in 1843. The journals recount a hitherto unknown chapter in Abovian’s celebrated first ascent of Mount Ararat with the naturalist and mountaineer Friedrich Parrot. A large portion of these notes was dedicated to their observations of proto-cuneiform glyphs and several elaborate and interlocking Cyclopean ruins in the vicinity of the Armenian monastery of St. Hakob, from which they made their first successful ascent on October 9, 1829.

Abovian supposedly became preoccupied with these ruins, formulating a theory that they were part of a Bronze Age ritual complex dedicated to a volcanic mountain god associated with Mount Ararat. He postulated that the site had been constructed in anticipation of a future volcanic eruption and that the linear assembly of Cyclopean corridors—which were the site’s main feature—would direct the anticipated flows of magma into channels of subterranean intake valves: a casting system that would create a massive bell, measuring an estimated nine metres in height and five metres in diameter. In these letters, Abovian relates his reticence to publish his preliminary findings, having been met with disdain by colleagues and clergy, and so had been venturing to return for further in-depth investigations the following year. Felitsyn went on to tell Shavrov that around the time of Abovian’s second and third ascents of Mount Ararat with Otto Wilhelm Hermann von Abich and Henry Danby Seymour in 1845 and 1846, respectively, he’d become increasingly despondent, having found these ruins and the monastery completely buried by an avalanche unleashed by the earthquake of July 2, 1840. Felitsyn speculated that Abovian’s quest to prove the veracity of his bell theory had so engrossed him that it might explain his sudden disappearance in 1848, which Felitsyn assumed was instigated by a clandestine attempt to uncover the buried ruins.

The narrative about Abovian’s fixation on these ancient structures greatly fascinated us. Particularly, we were captivated by the monuments’ unique relationship to scale, both temporal and spatial, to be reified only at the moment of catastrophe—in effect, functioning as a final testimony of an extinguished civilization. In addition to the records inserted within Shavrov’s Caspian Expedition notes, we came across several illustrations in an unmarked folder buried under piles of old documents that had yet to be sorted in the librarian’s office. These illustrations, allegedly commissioned by Shavrov, depict a hypothetical mechanism for realizing the passive casting of a bell by guiding lava through gating systems into a gigantic subterranean mould. Alongside these illustrations were several reproductions of research papers and diagrams of Cyclopean burial mounds and dolmens, packaged with a peculiar set of constructivist architectural drawings depicting what appears to be a similar casting mechanism. We found little evidence to point to the provenance of these additional documents aside from a signature on the back reading “это кто, 1922,” most likely a pseudonym translating to: “Who is this?” Curious to find out more about the origin of these illustrations, we inquired with the librarian who mentioned that the grounds of the Sericultural Station and the current museum had been intermittently occupied by Bolshevik forces from the time of the Soviet invasion in 1921 and that perhaps one of the officers had taken the liberty of rearranging, manipulating and making additions to the old archives, leaving us with this enigmatic folder.

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